A Newsletter With An Eye On Political Media from The American Prospect
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Maggie Haberman’s New Book Puts Trump in Context
The surprisingly good Confidence Man actually makes sense of Trump’s rise and his ability to twist the media to his will.
Like I imagine many Altercation readers, I have been an eager consumer, though not a fan, of Maggie Haberman’s access-based reporting on Donald Trump and company in The New York Times. Her scoops were often eye-popping, but they often lacked the necessary context to explain why they mattered. The “he said/she said” pattern of daily journalism was partially to blame. But even more so, it was the Grey Lady’s commitment to an outdated notion of objective journalism that shoveled almost all political reporting inside an inappropriate “both sides” framework, one that had the effect over time of normalizing Trump’s most egregious (and sometimes insane) behavior.

I did not expect much from Haberman’s much-anticipated tome, as almost all books by political beat reporters are terrible. Yes, they save a few nuggets from their readers so that their publicists can promote the book as news, as Peter Baker and Susan Glasser did for their recent Trump book. But these can be gleaned from news reports that pick up on them without slogging through, say, 752 pages of journalese that did not matter on the day after it happened and is certainly without consequence years later.

But lo and behold, Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America turns out to be a pleasant surprise. It’s not merely a primary source for future historians but also, as both Sean Wilentz and Joe Klein noted in their respective reviews, a contextually reported story of Trump’s rise that actually helps make sense of Trump, and shows how he bent both the Republican Party and the mainstream media to his will.

I have an imperfect memory from 1984 or 1985 of attending a “Master’s Tea” at Yale, in which Maureen Dowd and another reporter gave a talk and were asked (by me, I guess) about what was then a remarkably generous Times Magazine Trump profile. They did not pretend that the story was accurate in the larger sense. Rather they explained that their subject had ended up getting something of a free pass because nobody had any interest in going on the record about someone so hypersensitive, vindictive, and unrestrained by truth or even the law.

Those of us who make our living in even remote proximity to the New York/Washington/politico/media/corporate world of back-scratching (and backstabbing) all expect a certain amount of personal corruption to go unmentioned to the great unwashed. This can involve killing stories as a personal favor (or writing them), or not looking too deeply into matters that might complicate one’s life or one’s job or interfere with a favor one either needs now or might one day. Almost no institution is immune.

Trump’s career has, from its infancy in his father’s racist shadow—and the backing of his dirty money—stretched the limits of allowable corruption beyond any previously known borders, and done so in more directions than one can even keep track of. He is (OK, allegedly) a compulsive liar, a poisonous racist, an admirer of Hitler, a rapist, a con man, an idiot, and by the way, a terrible businessman … I could, as always, go on. But by having a genius for both the weakness of institutions, the needs of the people who ran them, and above all, the audacity that total shamelessness can give a person in American public life, he not only somehow got elected president but may have put himself in a position to lead what may be a fatal attack on American democracy.

Haberman does not tell this larger story, but she helps you—especially people unfamiliar with the New York tabloid media culture that facilitated Trump’s rise—understand how it could have happened. She’s got a thesis and a context for her anecdotes. As Wilentz explains, Trump was a product of the “late 1970s and 1980s New York demimonde of hustlers, mobsters, political bosses, compliant prosecutors and tabloid scandalmongers,” and today “he swaggers and struts and cons on the world’s largest stage, much as he did when gossip columnists fawned over him as The Donald.”

Like her fellow daily journalist book authors, she is guilty of holding back some of her best stuff from readers of her newspaper. But let’s face it, there’s nothing anyone can report about Trump that would shake the faith of his cult, nor free Republican politicians from the fear that leads them to cower at his every tantrum. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make the complaint rather beside the point.

Haberman writes regarding 2016: “The media writ large was unprepared to cover a political candidate who lied as freely as Trump did, on matters big and small. Even those of us who had covered Trump for years struggled with how to handle the gush of falsehoods that dotted his sentences. The word ‘lie’ was infrequently used by mainstream outlets, which tended not to write more than they felt they could glean about a politician’s motivations.”

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I didn’t see any books at all listed in Haberman’s notes and there is no bibliography. If she had, however, consulted one book, say, Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie—and Why Trump Is Worse by yours truly, it could have enriched her discussion of this point. In the first instance that Trump, as president-elect, was caught in an obvious lie—when he said, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”—here is what I wrote:

[O]nly the New York Times crossed the line and employed the word “lie” in its headline. The rest ranged from: “Trump Wrongly Blames …” (AP) to “Trump Falsely Tells …” (Chicago Tribune), “Trump Still Pushing Unconfirmed Claims …” (New York Daily News), “Trump Repeats Unsupported Claim” (Wall Street Journal), and “Without Evidence, Trump Tells …” (Washington Post). At least two allegedly neutral sources, CNN and The Hill, also repeated Trump’s lie without any qualification: “Trump Believes Fraud Cost Him Popular Vote” (CNN), and “Trump Continues to Insist Voter Fraud Robbed Him of Popular Vote” (The Hill).

The problem with so many of these headlines was that they took no position on whether Trump’s boast was true or not. The CNN and Hill headlines positively encouraged the lie. These news organizations apparently felt themselves helpless in the face of a phenomenon they had never faced before: a president who was an unapologetic, pathological liar and did not care who knew it. And yet the word “lie” remained off the table for most media institutions. As New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet would argue, “If you get loose with the word lie, you’re going to look pretty scurrilous. Right? It’s going to be in every story.”

Other journalists also worried about alienating Trump voters by telling the truth about his lies. “Every time he lies you have to point out it’s a lie, and there’s a part of this country that hears that as an attack,” wrote New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg. “That is a serious problem.” And so Trump’s lies, the scale of which had no precedent in American political history, were treated like politics-as-usual.

It took nearly four years and more than 30,000 lies for the members of the mainstream media to wake up to the reality of the Frankenstein monster they had helped to create. As Haberman correctly concludes, “When the tide sank, all boats were lowered. Trump had proven that the majority of Washington Republicans who had initially opposed him were exactly as craven as he had said they were, as he bent them to his will because they saw personal opportunity or necessity for survival, even after the Capital riot.” She reports that she texted the Times Washington bureau at the moment of Trump’s election: “You have no idea what is coming.” They no longer, however, have that excuse.

The real question that Trump’s rise raises is: How in the world did we become a country where 70 million-plus people ever thought that this dangerously evil lunatic should be trusted with the most powerful job in the world, and apparently still do? Haberman’s narrow focus on Trump’s career tells that part of the story more fully and comprehensively than you’ll find anywhere else.

But given that Donald Trump is as much a symbol of what’s wrong with this country as he is its cause, we’re going to need a great deal more. And given their investment in the system that gave rise to Trump and helped to invite the abuses that led us to our current, precipitous moment, you can bet we are not going to get those answers from the mainstream media.
Here’s a notice for one of the Zoom talks I’ll be giving for my forthcoming book, We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel, this one via the Nazarian Center at UCLA; and here is Bruce giving us a tantalizing 2.24-minute preview of his new album of soul covers, Only the Strong Survive.

And Let’s Go Mets!
See you next week.
Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, an award-winning journalist, and the author of 11 books, most recently Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie—and Why Trump Is Worse (Basic, 2020). Previously, he wrote The Nation’s “Liberal Media” column for 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @eric_alterman
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